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EDTA Conference: Who Killed the Plug-in Hybrid?

AutoblogGreen readers got a preview of Don Hillebrand's Thursday speech at the EDTA Conference on Wednesday. Hillebrand, director of the Center for Transportation Research at Argonne National Laboratory, had his presentation set and ready to go when I spoke with him early in the week, but by the time he got up to the podium on Thursday, the message had changed. Rick Wagoner had announced GM's upcoming PHEV, after all, so the landscape was reworked. Throwing a little bit of a pessimistic view on PHEV work, Hillebrand gave a presentation from the future (2010, to be exact) titled "Who killed the plug-in?" While emphasizing that it was the responsibility of the people gathered in the room is to make sure this satire never becomes a reality, Hillebrand laid out how bad standards, bad regulation, bad legislation, hype and haste could all kill the PHEV.
PHEVs are currently being brought to life and the DOE has directed the various labs working on the technology to be skeptical, be thorough, set hype aside and find the real benefit of PHEVs. As he explained to AutoblogGreen the other day, Argonne Lab is trying to develop a test for PHEVs to understand the real mpg rating of a car that plugs in. Hillebrand stated, but didn't explain, that CAFE standards could seriously damage PHEVs. Another trouble spot for PHEVs, bad legislation, will come about if too much money is earmarked for specific companies or vehicles, and not enough is available to go around and make a PHEV a reality. This comment was a direct warning to the people at the conference who will now go to their congressional delegates and try to get funding for their projects.

As for hype, Hillebrand said that visionaries are great, but there comes a time when you want to shoot the visionaries and hire engineers (which elicited quiet laughter).The OEMs will build PHEVs, Hillebrand said, but to do it right they need to keep costs down. Careful engineering will prevent that first battery fire that hits the news and dooms PHEVs in the market. Diesels were pushed into the marketplace before they were ready, he said, and that left a bad taste in consumer's mouths that still lingers today.

So, there's a lot of difficulties that need to be overcome to bring PHEVs to market. In case he eventually needs it, HIllebrand called dibs on the joke that will open this presentation in 2010: "The plug-in is the car of tomorrow, and it always will be."

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